Has anyone asked what exactly the United States seeks to have in a post-Karzai Afghanistan? Presumably Washington has given up on the idea of a traditional Western democracy. The country is just not culturally disposed in that manner. Pashtun tribal councils dominate in their primarily south and eastern regions and similar socio-ethnic situations exist in the northern and western areas of Tajiks, Hazara, and Uzbeks. Smaller ethnic groupings spread around the nation. For the ordinary American citizen footing the bill, there has been no explanation as to why Afghanistan is strategically important to the U.S. There are no dominoes to fall; there is no great energy wealth to protect or seaways to dominate.
The United States, with all good intentions, has fallen into the trap once again of seeking to bring western culture, morality and ethics to a part of the world that for centuries has shown it eschews such conversion. There are no plums for Jack Horner to pull out of the pie — unless one wants to interdict the massive trade in opium and its products that now even more than pre-2001 are grown, transformed into heroin, and transported through Afghanistan. Apparently, however, the Washington administrations have given up on earlier efforts to halt or even reduce that historic commerce.
Back in the good old, bad old days of Vietnam, when the U.S. was unhappy with a leader or his leadership, he was removed. Sometimes this was accomplished by legalistic means, sometimes by what was known as “executive action,” not to be confused with today’s overused White House privilege. This was when the “total war” concepts of WW2 had been transferred to all aspects of the Cold War of which Indochina had become a part. Afghanistan has never evolved as a nation beyond this same form of sanguinary governance. Some attribute this environment to being a vestige of colonialism. That could be well argued, but it would be untrue. Tribal authoritarianism comes in many forms and persists today in many regions of the world. Afghanistan is not unique in its retention of its ancient and brutal ways.
As Bill Clinton likes to recall, the United States’ intelligence community was chasing Osama bin Laden around Africa and the Middle East during his presidency. It has been argued that if OBL hadn’t chosen Afghanistan to set up his main sanctuary and training facility, the U.S. never would have invaded. Bin Laden’s former wartime mujahideen connections with the Taliban against the Soviets in Afghanistan offered a political and geographical advantage that, for instance, Sudan, an earlier Osama bolt hole, didn’t provide.
There remains the unspoken question of “Why don’t we just have uncontrollable Karzai eliminated in tried and true Chicago fashion along with some of his key Afghan mafia buddies?” It’s certainly not that we haven’t done that sort of thing before. And it can’t be because the current American president is too squeamish over targeted killing. Obama’s approval of drone strikes in spite of their record of collateral casualties argues against any hesitancy toward “executive action” on his part. If anything, the current White House seems to view carefully targeted killing to be the more acceptable way to wage war rather than the far more bloody and costly traditional war-fighting we have participated in recently in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The answer may be more hopeful than realistic. The Administration’s NSC staff along with the Secretary of State, John Kerry, decided that Karzai will disappear anyhow from office in a short while and we therefore can avoid a messy coup d’état. The groundwork has been laid by a Department of Defense that is operating under instructions to put as favorable a face as possible on the political-military situation in Afghanistan during the 2014 mid-term election year.
The worst assessment that is offered by U.S. military spokesmen is that the Afghan forces have been achieving military successes, but they will continue to need substantial logistical support for the indefinite future after the American troops leave. To not remain in such a close and cooperative relationship carries the danger of losing “all” that has been gained over the years of combat and national restructuring. The clearest and most direct view of the future in Afghanistan was given by the departing U.S. Army operational commander, Lt. General Mark Milley when he indicated that without American/international backup, “ It would be a challenge for them [the Afghan forces] to be able to sustain themselves.”
The reality of Afghanistan is that the United States doesn’t have any strategic interest in that territory other than in support of any future full-scale conflict with Iran in addition to the basic fear of the reestablishment of an international jihadist movement such as al Qaeda. At this point with all the other al Qaeda and al Qaeda affiliates operating in the Middle East and Africa, Afghanistan no longer needs to be counted on for their support. But then, of course, there is that income that is derived from Afghanistan’s participation in the world’s opium trafficking on which the jihadi want to get their hands. Now that would be an interesting battle: al Qaeda versus the Afghan Taliban.